The city of Ruston says it plans to let the developers of Point Ruston move forward on a key piece of their project, but it wasn’t at all clear the divide between the adversaries was close to being bridged.
Developers of the $1.2 billion project have complained of facing years of government obstruction to their construction plans in the city of 749 residents. City leaders and state and federal environmental officials accuse Point Ruston of running roughshod over regulations.
With the sides at an impasse, Point Ruston has sought to become fully absorbed by Tacoma, where more than half of the project already sits.
The request brought leaders of both cities before a state House committee Wednesday. That’s where Ruston announced plans to issue permits for a road and a parking garage.
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Ruston Mayor Bruce Hopkins said later Wednesday that the permit for the garage was ready to pick up but that Point Ruston lawyers had raised some concerns about conditions attached to it. “I think we’re there in principle, and now it’s just crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s,” Hopkins said.
That clashed with the view from Point Ruston developers’ legal representative, Loren Cohen, who said he knew of no permits. Cohen called it “more of the same stall tactics and inaction.”
Construction on both projects had started without city approval, Hopkins said, and the affected portion of Yacht Club Road has already been built, so a forthcoming permit would be a formality.
Ruston officials have said the road wasn’t wide enough to allow access by fire trucks, but Hopkins said Wednesday the permit could be issued with the understanding the road must allow fire-truck access once buildings go up alongside it.
The parking garage, the only structure under construction on the Ruston side of the development, has been contentious. Ruston City Councilman Jim Hedrick told lawmakers an agreement reached among the parties in November had provided for the garage to move forward, until developers rejected the deal. Developers say there was no permit offered and that it was city officials who backed out of a deal.
The garage is intended to be part of a cap on the land contaminated by the former Asarco copper smelter, and developers said they were going ahead with construction under the authority of a federal law that governs cleanup of polluted sites.
The city issued a stop-work order on the garage at 5101 Grand Loop in December. The city has contended that plans for the garage didn’t comply with a master land-use plan for the project.
But on Wednesday, Hopkins said the city can be flexible on those issues now that there is an understanding the permit is solely for the garage, with no authority for surrounding buildings that had showed up in previous permit applications. That’s what the conditions spell out, he said.
The controversy was aired Wednesday in the House Local Government Committee, with testimony from representatives of Tacoma, developers and a building-trades union on the need to get construction going.
“Four years, no permits in a timely manner, is a record I can’t understand,” Point Ruston consultant Tim Thompson said.
Hedrick said Ruston needs the development, too. “I don’t even know if we can survive with Point Ruston,” he said. “I know we can’t survive without them.”
The hearing was an unusual one. Public hearings at the Legislature usually weigh the good and bad of a bill up for consideration – in this case, House Bill 2074, which is scheduled for a potential vote Thursday in the committee.
Here, though, the real controversy is over not what is in the bill, but what might end up there. Developers want state law changed to let them seek annexation by Tacoma without Ruston’s approval.
Hedrick told lawmakers the bill is a threat to keep Ruston at the negotiating table. It could be filled in, he said, “with other language that would be a unilateral takeover of the town of Ruston — not the entire town of Ruston, just the part that raises the almighty buck.”
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said the bill is a “tool” to make sure the parties are bargaining in good faith.
“This is not some hostile takeover,” Strickland said, and later added: “This is not big, bad Tacoma trying to trample on the town of Ruston.”
The words officially set down on paper aren’t particularly contentious. First Tacoma Rep. Jake Fey and three fellow local Democrats introduced House Bill 2074 as a “title-only bill” with no real content. Then committee chairman Dean Takko, D-Longview, offered a proposed new version that doesn’t prevent Ruston or other cities from saying no to annexation — it just requires them to say no twice.
Under Takko’s proposal, property owners trying to secede from a city could appeal a city council’s rejection. The appeal would go right back to the same council, which would then have to take 90 days to consider the appeal.
Fey said the change “extends the time clock” to buy more time for negotiations. Hopkins said it seems like a waste of money.
Why all this attention to the proposal now, when it may not be in its final form? Lawmakers are trying to keep the bill alive. Bills that don’t advance out of committee by Friday are technically dead for the year.